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Doing Hard History

Jamie Eves is the Executive Director of the Windham Textile and History Museum, a.k.a. the Mill Museum, a small-to-middle-sized history museum in Willimantic, CT. He has an M.A. in History from the University of Maine and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Connecticut. He has been the E.D. at the Mill Museum since 2011, and a volunteer at the Museum since 2004. He has taught U. S. History, World and European History, and the History of Connecticut and New England as adjunct faculty at Eastern Connecticut State University, the University of Connecticut, Three Rivers Community College, the University of Saint Joseph, Albertus Magnus College, the University of Bridgeport, and Central Connecticut State University. He has served on the Boards of Directors of the Association for the Study of Connecticut History and the Connecticut league of History Organizations, and is a member of the Connecticut Coalition for History. He has written public history columns for the CLHO Bulletin and the Willimantic Chronicle. 

One of the highlights of the year for public historians in Connecticut is the annual conference of the Connecticut League of History Organizations, held this year on June 3 at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain. The conference provides a chance to network with other public historians, and to learn innovative new ways to present history to the general public. It attracts dozens of museum professionals and volunteers, members of local historical societies, and even a smattering of academic historians, from across Connecticut. There were 21 different workshops this year, running concurrently in four, hour-long “breakout sessions,” so it wasn’t possible to take in everything. (A colleague absolutely despises concurrent breakout sessions, but pretty much all conferences these days have them, and I confess that I have gotten used to them.) There was also a keynote talk during lunch.

Four of us from the Windham Textile and History Museum (the Mill Museum) went this year: me, Bev York the Museum’s Educational Director, Kira Holmes the Vice President of our Board (and a worker at Mystic Seaport), and my wife Kit, a longtime volunteer at the Mill Museum. Kira and Kit co-taught a workshop on fundraising. Among the four of us, we were able to attend a majority of the workshops. Keeping in mind the State of Connecticut’s new social studies curriculum guidelines that expand the teaching of African American and Latinx history in public schools, I particularly looked for workshops dealing with how museums could help schools teach those themes.

I was excited to learn in one workshop about the Witness Stones project, begun in Guilford, CT, but now also duplicated in West Hartford. The goal of the project, according to Guilford’s Dennis Culliton and West Hartford’s Elizabeth Devine and Tracey Wilson, is to incorporate the history of enslaved people into Connecticut’s cloud of historic monuments and sites. The names and histories of Connecticans who were not enslaved already blanket our landscape, in the form of street names, other place names, and plaques on historic houses. But enslaved people as individuals too often have been ignored and forgotten — even though they, too, played vital roles in creating colonial and early 19th-century Connecticut. Enslaved people lived in almost every colonial Connecticut town – indeed, Connecticut had more slaves than all of the other New England colonies combined. The center for the New England slave trade was Newport, RI, but prosperous Connecticut farmers and shippers traveled to the Newport slave market regularly, looking for slave labor. So Culliton, Devine, Wilson, and others began looking for the histories enslaved persons in their towns’ histories and records, identifying each person when possible, and placing small paving stones near the locations where they lived. The stones bear inscriptions like “[Name of Enslaved Person] was enslaved on this site in [year],” or “[Name of person] was emancipated here in [year].” Other information about them is recorded, too. In both towns, schools played important roles in the projects. More information about the West Hartford project can be found at https://sites.google.com/view/westhartfordct/witnessstones/home.

The history of Connecticut’s enslaved people is an example of what is known as “hard history.” It’s “hard” because the research is difficult. Even the names of enslaved people often were not recorded – as a team of researchers at Hartford’s Ancient Burial Ground led by CCSU History Professor Kathy Hermes found out when they discovered dozens of brief burial records for persons called simply “a negro.” But it is also “hard history” because slavery and race are difficult and emotional subjects. As with most difficult subjects, we have a tendency to avoid talking about them. But they also are important subjects, and avoiding them leaves us with incomplete histories. That was the point made by Melissa Houston, the Educator at the Keeler Tavern Museum and History Center in Ridgefield, and Cheyney McKnight, a consultant who worked with her. “As a white woman, I had to get past taking the subjects of slavery and racism as attacks on me personally,” Houston said.

Enslaved people – along with African Americans who were legally free, but did unpaid work – lived at Keeler Tavern in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Houston and McKnight talked about how they learned to incorporate them and their stories into the Museum’s popular school tours. Similarly, West Hartford’s Devine and Wilson – both retired social studies teachers – talked about how their project helped make African American history more relevant in their town’s public schools. They made their research – including documents – available to teachers, and then worked with the teachers to develop relevant class projects, such as writing stories and creating art about the enslaved people. The consensus was clear: the history of African Americans  (and Native Americans) in Connecticut must forthrightly deal with the fact of 17th, 18th, and early 19th-century slavery, but at the same time acknowledge that enslaved people (the term “slave” implies that being a slave was the person’s only identity, while the term “enslaved person” both acknowledges that that they were people, and that their enslavement was something that was imposed on them and not the whole of their identity) were living, breathing human beings with hopes and dreams and wants and loves and longings, people who contributed greatly to the creation of Connecticut.

All of us – public historians and teachers alike – need to do more hard history. The Mill Museum does some, but there is need for more. On Monday, I got some good ideas about how to go about it.

The Stories Behind the Artifacts

Jamie Eves is the Executive Director of the Windham Textile and History Museum, a.k.a. the Mill Museum, a small-to-middle-sized history museum in Willimantic, CT. He has an M.A. in History from the University of Maine and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Connecticut. He has been the E.D. at the Mill Museum since 2011, and a volunteer at the Museum since 2004. He has taught U. S. History, World and European History, and the History of Connecticut and New England as adjunct faculty at Eastern Connecticut State University, the University of Connecticut, Three Rivers Community College, the University of Saint Joseph, Albertus Magnus College, the University of Bridgeport, and Central Connecticut State University.  

   I love artifacts because they tell stories. The things themselves are interesting, to be sure. And many of them, like most of the quilts in the Mill Museum’s new exhibit, Under Cover Stories, are breathtaking works of art. But it is stories behind the artifacts that I find compelling – stories of the women, children, and men who created and used them. Here are the stories behind some of the artifacts in Under Cover Stories. To see more – and to actually see the artifacts themselves – stop by the Mill Museum, 411 Main Street, Willimantic, CT, 06226, open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. The exhibit is up through July 28.

A Woven Woolen Blanket from the Market Revolution

   This woolen blanket was spun and woven by hand by Mary Hobart Spear, who was an adult during the first half of the 19th century. (Two of her children were born in 1805 and 1814.) Typical of such blankets, it is constructed of two long pieces of cloth stitched together. A woman’s loom could not be wider than her wingspan, as she had to throw the shuttle with one hand and catch it with the other, which limited the width of a piece of homemade woven cloth. Mary Hobart Spear lived in the vicinity of Quincy, Massachusetts. Her husband, John Spear, owned a ship, and was probably fairly affluent.

   The story told by this blanket is the story of the Market Revolution in New England during the Early Republic. Following the American Revolution (1763-1783), the newly independent United States commenced a second revolution, the Market Revolution, well known to historians but not so much to the general public. It was at this time – the late 1700s and early 1800s, not during the earlier colonial era — that most of Connecticut’s villages formed, with their neat greens, steepled churches, white clapboard houses, general stores, shops, and inns. Taking advantage of the new nation’s sudden freedom from British mercantilism, Yankee traders launched into the global marketplace. Village storekeepers bought up handmade woven textiles from farm women (many of them teenagers) and resold them to shippers in New England’s bustling ports for international trade. As part of this new trade, New England women wove blankets like this one on hand looms, either for home use or to barter for produce at the general store. The monograph indicates that Spear likely intended to use her blanket at home. But plenty of women wove blankets and other cloth for the burgeoning new trade. Picking up a new way to contribute to the family economy, women strengthened their economic positions, within their families and their communities. The Market Revolution was not the only factor that contributed to a new women’s rights movement in the early 1800s, but it was one of them.

Mary Spear’s hand spun, hand woven woolen blanket, c. early 1800s. It is two pieces of cloth, stitched together. Hand looms could be no wider than the weaver’s wingspan.

Each Patch a Story: Mary Pollard “Polly” Leopold’s Patchwork Quilt

   This patchwork quilt was made by Mary Pollard “Polly” Leopold (1882-1941) of Lisbon, CT, and was obviously well used. It tells multiple stories: of the Industrial Revolution, of traditional women’s needle work, and the stories behind each patch itself.

   Patchwork quilts became common in the early 19th century. Colonial Era quilts were often constructed from single pieces of (usually) white cloth and were not pieced. In the 19th century, however, families became more likely to save leftover pieces of cloth — the remnants of clothing and other manufactured textiles — that could be cut up and pieced together. Patchwork quilts gave ordinary women and girls the opportunity to practice and show off their skill with a needle. A patchwork quilt could become part of a woman’s trousseau, a treasured family heirloom placed on the bed only when company was over. The individual pieces served as memories, recalling the former uses of each of them. Although intended to be used as bed covers, patchwork quilts added to the artistry of women’s quilt making. They actually gained popularity throughout the 19th century, as home sewing machines became more common and the quilts became easier to make.

   As it turns out, patchwork quilts also inspired an actual story in an early 1800s magazine. One of the first descriptions of patchwork quilts in American literature is the short story “The Patchwork Quilt,” published in 1845 in The Lowell Offering, a newspaper/magazine published by the “mill girls” — young, unmarried female mill operatives — at the giant textile mills in Lowell, MA. The story’s author wrote under the pseudonym “Annette,” but she was either Harriet Farley or Rebecca Thompson, both Lowell mill girls. Although the story is a work of sentimental fiction, its description of the fabric and labor that went into producing a patchwork quilt is instructive and worth reading — a good account of traditional women’s needlework at the opening of the Industrial   Revolution. Interestingly, the quilt in the story, although intended as a bed cover, ends up as an “art quilt” hanging on the creator’s wall. I found a complete copy of “The Patchwork Quilt” and transcribed it. We will put it on the Museum’s website.

Mary Pollard "Polly" Leopold's quilt: each patch a story.
Harriet Farley, the Lowell mill girl who founded and edited the Lowell Offering, and possibly wrote "The Patchwork Quilt."

Mary Bowman’s Prize-Winning Bedspread

   In 1889 Mary Bowman of Willimantic, CT, won the “best bedspread” prize at that year’s Willimantic Agricultural Fair. She was presented with a large certificate signed by E. S. Boss, the Willimantic Fair Association president and also the manager of the Willimantic Linen Company, a large thread mill. Agricultural fairs — even when they occurred in mill cities like Willimantic — were an opportunity for women to show off their skills in traditional crafts like sewing, spinning, weaving, crocheting, and embroidery. Bowman’s crocheted bedspread featured a centennial pattern, with illustrations of every United States President. Bowman probably began the bedspread around the centennial year of 1876.

   Mary Bowman was born Mary Whyte in 1845 in Aberdeen, Scotland. She married John Bowman, an Englishman, in London in 1866. Shortly after, the couple immigrated to the United States; their son William was born in New York in 1868. In 1869 they moved to Willimantic, where John operated a men’s clothing store and Mary raised their family. Four of their six children died in infancy; perhaps crocheting an intricate bedspread helped distract her from her grief. The Bowmans resided at 39 Lebanon Avenue, now 95 Hayden Street. John died in 1905, Mary in 1922. The bedspread remained in the Bowman family, a treasured heirloom, and was left to the Mill Museum by the estate of Gladys Bowman, Mary’s granddaughter, who passed away in 2004.

   Mary Bowman’s prize-winning bedspread tells at least two stories. The first is the story of how the Industrial Revolution transformed women’s work. Bowman crocheted the bedspread at a time when the manufacture of bed covers was undergoing a major transformation. Women no longer made bed covers like this out of necessity, to keep their families warm in cold Connecticut winters. A new, factory-made bedspread could be purchased from Sears, Roebuck for less than a dollar. Nor were beds what they had been in the colonial era, when they were often the most expensive piece of furniture in a small house, and therefore on display to visitors. Mary Bowman’s house was large, and the bedrooms were upstairs where most visitors would not have seen them. Handmade bedspreads had become transformed from necessary crafts to examples of women’s art, shown off at fairs. The competitions offered by the fairs was important. When women’s traditional crafts had been routinely on display to ordinary visitors, women’s work had also been on display, and the women who created fine bedcovers could point to them with pride. Now, agricultural fairs gave women the same opportunity to demonstrate their skills and win praise – and even prizes — for their achievements. It is unlikely that Bowman’s prize-winning bedspread spent much time on her bed.

   But there is another story here, as well. As immigrants like Mary Bowman poured into the United States during the second half of the 19th century, they were often greeted with scorn and suspicion by native-born Americans. In the 1850s the nativist American Party – the so-called Know Nothings – had for a time won control of the Connecticut state government. By choosing a patriotic theme, Bowman could proclaim her own “Americanism,” and declare herself a patriotic immigrant.

Mary Bowman's prize-winning bedspread, held by her great great granddaughter.

A Poor Milliner’s Crazy Quilt

    By the 1890s, factory-made quilts, coverlets, and bedspreads had become readily available at low prices. The 1897 Sears, Roebuck mail order catalog, for example, listed new bed quilts for sale for as little as 48 cents each. Handmade quilts, with all their time and labor, no longer made economic sense. Thus women made crazy quilts, which became popular during the Gilded Age (1877-96), not as utilitarian bed covers, but as ornamental couch throws for parlors, a way of demonstrating their creative skills to guests. Rather than regular blocks from set patterns, the pieces were shaped by the artistic sensibilities of the creator. Silk, satin, and velvet were the most common fabrics. Japanese motifs, like dragonflies, insects, spider webs, and flowers were often embroidered on them.

   Elizabeth L. Ramsden, a Willimantic milliner, made this crazy quilt in 1892 with scraps left over from her millinery work. Miss Ramsden operated a small shop at 129 Valley Street, a tenement near downtown, where she also resided with John Ramsden, perhaps her father. One of the stories told by the quilt is the role of small female-owned businesses like Ramsden’s. Milliners like Ramsden had no chance of becoming wealthy, but they did have a certain degree of independence.

   By 1935, when women’s hats had declined in popularity, Ramsden was no longer listed as a milliner in Willimantic city directories. She became impoverished and moved into a small cottage in the Methodist Willimantic Camp Meeting, where she resided until her death in 1944, at which time all of her belongings, including this quilt, were sold. That’s another story told by the quilt. Small businesswomen like Ramsden were never very far from poverty. Their lives were not easy.

   

   Come to the Mill Museum between now and July 28, 2019, and encounter these stories, and more.

Elizabeth L. Ramsden's crazy quilt.

Working Museums

Jamie Eves is the Executive Director of the Windham Textile and History Museum, a.k.a. the Mill Museum, a small-to-middle-sized history museum in Willimantic, CT. He has an M.A. in History from the University of Maine and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Connecticut. He has been the E.D. at the Mill Museum since 2011, and a volunteer at the Museum since 2004. He has taught U. S. History, World and European History, and the History of Connecticut and New England as adjunct faculty at Eastern Connecticut State University, the University of Connecticut, Three Rivers Community College, the University of Saint Joseph, Albertus Magnus College, the University of Bridgeport, and Central Connecticut State University.

The Windham Textile and History Museum – a.k.a., the Mill Museum – is what I think of as a working museum, meaning that the staff and volunteers are continually engaged in doing actual history. The Museum accepts, preserves, and catalogs new artifacts. It engages in ongoing historical research. It frequently changes its exhibits. It is dynamic.

I got to see another kind of museum a few years ago when my wife Kit and I took an organized bus tour of seven national parks in and near the Rocky Mountains. Because interstate highways in the Rockies tend to run east-to-west, and not north-to-south, our bus spent a lot of time navigating back roads as we traveled from Glacier National Park in the North to the Grand Canyon in the South. The bus made frequent stops for food, gas, restrooms, and shopping. Among the many stops were several little museums in small towns. Typically, each of these museums had a gift shop staffed by elderly volunteers, restrooms, and an exhibit room featuring professional signage and artifacts of local history sealed inside hermetical glass cases. Occasionally, there was also a small theater with a professionally made film. There were no paid staff, no archives or collections department, and no changing exhibits. The museums had been created by federal grant funds, but they lacked the finances to operate as working museums. They were static, with exhibits frozen in time.

These static museums were disappointing. Kit and I noticed that our fellow travelers rarely bothered to explore the exhibits. Other than being neat and tidy, the exhibits did little to engage visitors. They attempted to tell a version of each town’s founding by settlers in the nineteenth century. The artifacts all looked the same. There was rarely any attempt to depict change over time. Instead the exhibits presented a “bipolar” history of then and now. Now was visible outside the museum. Then was inside. None of the volunteers were doing any kind of ongoing research. Exhibits never changed. History was presented as unchanging.

Working museums are the opposite of these static museums. They portray history as dynamic. Change over time is depicted as constant, with different eras blending into each other. A collections department continually seeks out new artifacts, and then builds new stories around the new acquisitions. Changing exhibits find new stories to tell. Staff and volunteers discuss and debate what happened in the past. Community members join in lively discussions. History is continually reinterpreted and represented, as new information comes to light.

Compared to static museums, working museums can appear noisy, chaotic, and sometimes messy. Sometimes new acquisitions pile up faster than the staff can catalog them. Exhibits rooms are in flux, as new artifacts are added to permanent exhibits (which are never really permanent), and as older changing exhibits are dismantled and replaced with new ones. There is bustle and excitement.

Working museums are not as neat and tidy as static museums. Here at the Mill Museum, volunteer curators constructed a changing exhibit that included an artificial crow. When they struck the exhibit weeks later, they forgot about the crow. It was a few months before a visitor noticed it and asked what it had to do with the current exhibit. In another example, visiting school children were given tufts of raw cotton; most kept their pieces of cotton, but others tossed them on the floor, and it would not be until later that day that volunteers had the time to pick them up.

Working museums share spaces. The staff has to explain to visitors that today they will be sharing the museum with seventy-five active third graders, that the exhibit they came miles to see has already been taken down (savvy museum goers known always to check the website for dates), or that the artifact they most want to see is currently in storage (although, if the volunteer collections manager is there that day, it can be pulled out for inspection). Working museums change their signage frequently, which increases the chances of stray typos. Guest speakers may say something controversial (which is kind of the point of having guest speakers), and attendees might find themselves face-to-face with people who disagree with them. Working museums serve both the local community and visitors from away, each encountering the others’ narratives in the same space. Folks taking lessons in the weaving classroom chat animatedly as they clack their looms. School children sitting in a circle excitedly (and noisily) speculate about what that rug beater might be (a common guess: a swatter for giant flies). Different languages are spoken. All the while, staid elders glide quietly from room to room, self-guided tour booklets in hand.

Working museums are not neat, tidy, quiet static museums. They are so much better.  

The Methodist Melee on Main Street

Jamie Eves is the Executive Director of the Windham Textile and History Museum, a.k.a. the Mill Museum, a small-to-middle-sized history museum in Willimantic, CT. He has an M.A. in History from the University of Maine and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Connecticut. He has been the E.D. at the Mill Museum since 2011, and a volunteer at the Museum since 2004. He has taught U. S. History, World and European History, and the History of Connecticut and New England an adjunct instructor at Eastern Connecticut State University, the University of Connecticut, Three Rivers Community College, the University of Saint Joseph, Albertus Magnus College, the University of Bridgeport, and Central Connecticut State University.

Angry and despairing, in August 2017 I attended a rally in my town of Willimantic, CT, to protest the violence in Virginia, where a gang of Neo-Nazi thugs invaded the home of the University of Virginia, shouted white supremacist slogans, threatened those who disagreed with them, and murdered a counter-demonstrator. I am proud of the 700 or so folks from Willimantic and surrounding communities who stood together in Jillson Square Park and insisted that they would fight back. Several speakers pointed out that Willimantic, Connecticut, and the entire United Sates, too, have long histories of racism and racial violence, that we should not point fingers at Virginia, and that local as well as national conversations about these issues are needed. This is, of course, true. But history is complicated, and our history — our local history, Willimantic’s history — has produced both heroes and villains, homegrown white supremacists and principled resisters. We must condemn the former, but we should also praise the latter, for both speak to what we can be.

One of the resisters was Orrin Robinson of Willimantic, and this is his story, the story of what I call “the Methodist Melee on Main Street,” the story of how Robinson and the congregants of the Willimantic Methodist Church faced down a proslavery mob, of how they physically fought back in the dirt streets of the emerging Thread City, of how they defended freedom of speech, religion, and assembly, of how Robinson went to jail for his beliefs and became Willimantic’s — and Connecticut’s — very own Thoreau.

I found the story of Orrin Robinson and the Methodist Melee on Main Street in an 1895 article in the Willimantic Journal, a long-defunct newspaper. The article was one of a series written by Lloyd Baldwin, then an 85-year-old retired carpenter, builder, and contractor, about what Willimantic had been like in the years before the Civil War, when he had been a young man establishing himself in business. Baldwin moved from Norwich to Willimantic in 1828, as an apprentice carpenter hired to work on the construction of one of the Thread City’s new, big, granite textile mills, the Windham Cotton Manufacturing Company on Bridge Street. He stayed on to build scores of houses, churches, stores, theaters, and mills. Active in community affairs, he knew the vast majority of the city’s residents and was friends with most of them. Although himself an ardent Jacksonian Democrat – and thus presumably not inclined towards abolitionism – Baldwin nevertheless respected the integrity of his neighbor Orrin Robinson, an outspoken antislavery activist. Baldwin’s account of the Methodist Melee on Main Street is what historians call a primary source, a first-hand account of events by someone who lived through them. A secondary account of the Melee also exists, written by Allen Lincoln, a polished 19th-century local historian. Lincoln was too young to have any personal memories of the Melee, but he had heard the story from the old timers, probably including Baldwin himself. Lincoln wrote down what he had heard in 1892, as part of a (very long) oration on the history of Windham, CT, which he delivered at the town’s bicentennial.

As elsewhere in Connecticut in the 1830s, antebellum Willimantic and Windham (Willimantic is part of Windham) were sharply divided on the issue of slavery. Slavery had a long history in Connecticut. Africans had first been brought here to be slaves in 1639, only a few years after the earliest English colonists arrived. Of the first two non-Native Americans to settle in Windham, one was a slave owner, John Cates, and the other was his black slave, Joe. Slavery remained largely intact in Windham and Connecticut until 1784, shortly after the Revolution, when the state legislature provided for the gradual emancipation of Connecticut’s slaves, declaring that all slaves born after March 1 of that year were to be freed on their 25th birthdays. The process was agonizingly slow, however, and slavery did not completely end in Connecticut until 1848. As a result, most of the state’s antebellum Democrats and Whigs (the two major parties in the 1830s) remained ambivalent towards slavery, fearing that challenging it openly might create an irreparable breach between North and South, splinter their national parties, and result in secession or even civil war.

There were also economic reasons for Connecticutters to tolerate slavery in the South. Southern slaves planted, tended, and harvested most of the cotton that Willimantic’s (and Connecticut’s) textile mills manufactured into thread and cloth. Abolition might imperil local jobs and profits. And even those Northern whites who did favor abolishing slavery often shared the insidious prejudice against African Americans that characterized the era. As Anne Farrow, Joel Lang, and Jennifer Frank of the Hartford Courant pointed out in their book, Complicity, white Connecticutters were as complicit in American slavery as anyone else in the United States. A lot of them were willing to tolerate it, just so long as it remained in the South, safely out of sight. Northern whites as a group did not have clean hands.

Still, there were some residents of antebellum Willimantic who openly challenged slavery — some because they feared competition from slave labor, some out of principle. Who was who is hard to tell. But among those in Willimantic who took a stand against slavery were the city’s Methodists, who had only recently organized a congregation and, in 1836, built a new church on Main Street. According to Lloyd Baldwin, in the spring of 1837, the Methodists invited “an abolition lecturer by the name of Phelps” to come speak at the new church. This was not the first time they had done so, and not everyone in town was happy about it. Allen Lincoln identified the speaker as Aaron Phelps, a well known Hartford abolitionist. According to Lincoln, it was the Methodist minister, Rev. Moses White, who had invited Phelps to speak to his Willimantic congregation on three different days. On the first day, all was quiet. On the second, an angry mob gathered outside the Methodist Church in noisy protest, and threw stones through the glass windows. On the third day, a larger mob gathered in advance at the nearby Congregational Church and then marched en masse to the Methodist Church, bent on violence. No sooner had the speaker commenced, than the mob — Baldwin called them “young hotheads, encouraged no doubt by older ones who should have known better” — entered the church and attempted to shut things down. The mob’s leader, Charles Schofield, Lincoln wrote, strode to the front of the Church, demanding that Phelps cease speaking, and threatening him if he didn’t. But to Schofield’s great surprise, the Methodists fought back. According to Baldwin, a “rough and tumble scrimmage” broke out between the two sides that soon spilled out onto Main Street.

Lincoln provided a few more details about what happened, but not all of them were correct, so we should take them with a bit of skepticism. According to Lincoln, “young Orrin Robinson, tall and strong,” stepped out of the congregation, grabbed Schofield by the arm, and marched him out of the Church. Robinson, however, was 46 at the time, hardly young — not as young as the “young hotheads,” anyway — and may not have been especially tall or strong, either. Baldwin wrote that it was the congregation as a whole that resisted.

I try to imagine the scene. Tough, angry, young men, possibly armed with clubs, loud and shouting, shoving open the doors of the church, threatening the speaker and the congregation. The congregation, unarmed, surprised, likely made up primarily of middle-aged and older men and women, as well as children, seemingly no match for the organized young toughs. The thugs probably expected the Methodists to back down. That they didn’t is amazing. I try to imagine these older, peaceable people, including Robinson, courageously standing up to the mob. It seems almost incredible. But they did.

Someone notified the Deputy Sheriff, who Baldwin said was James Webb and Lincoln said was Edward Clark, who hurriedly arrived with at least one constable – and likely more – to break up the fight. After restoring order, the Deputy chewed out the combatants (he presumably read them the riot act) and – probably to ensure that the two sides didn’t start fighting again after he left – arrested and fined 15 or 20 of the leaders on both sides.

All but one of those arrested sheepishly paid their fines and went home. However, standing on principle, Robinson, a “strong abolitionist,” refused and instead announced that he would go to jail. Again, I try to picture the scene, the angry, middle-aged farmer, incredulous that the authorities would arrest and fine him because he had defended his and Phelps’s right to free speech, free religion, and free assembly under the Constitution. I find myself wanting more details about Robinson and what he was thinking. But even close to two centuries later, I can feel his palpable anger and rising passion. I think I know exactly why he did what he did.

So Robinson and “Constable Hosmer” – who Lincoln said was William Hosmer, but also might have have been Stephen Hosmer, a prosperous farmer with extensive fields at the base of Hosmer Mountain, on the edge of the city, or Stephen’s son, John, a respected Main Street merchant – set off on foot, according to Lincoln, for Brooklyn, the Windham County seat and site of the county jail (the same jail, it turns out, that would later hold another Connecticut hero, Prudence Crandall). Apparently, Hosmer was reluctant to drag the stubborn old Methodist to jail – Willimantic was still a small community, barely more than a village, and the two families, Robinsons and Hosmers, would have known each other. So, as Baldwin wrote, “making an excuse that he had forgotten his papers, … [Hosmer] left Robinson in the road, supposing that would end it.” But Robinson had his gumption up, and he continued on towards Brooklyn on his own. Lincoln said he did so “cheerfully.” “Determinedly” might be a better adverb. Hosmer returned to Willimantic, picked up any paperwork that he may have left behind, and headed back towards Brooklyn. He overtook Robinson, still on his way to the county seat, accompanied him the rest of the way to Brooklyn, and “committed him to jail.” Again, I try to picture Robinson, perhaps sputtering and angry, perhaps “cheerful” as Lincoln said, taking himself to jail, now fighting not a proslavery mob, but his own government. But still not backing down.

Thus Orrin Robinson of Willimantic, Connecticut, dedicated abolitionist, middle-aged farmer, and devout Methodist, refused to pay a fine for the “crime” of defending an abolitionist speaker’s right to speak – and his own and his fellow abolitionists’ right to assemble and practice their religion the way they saw fit – against an angry proslavery mob. He also refused to take advantage of Hosmer’s implied offer to let him go home and forget the whole thing. Instead, he voluntarily went to jail, committing an act of antislavery civil disobedience more than a decade before Henry David Thoreau’s more celebrated night in Concord jail for the similar offense of refusing to pay his poll tax because it supported a war – the Mexican-American War of the 1840s – that Thoreau believed was fought to acquire new land for slavery.

I don’t know what happened to Robinson next — how long he stayed in jail, whether he finally backed down and paid his fine, how his neighbors greeted him when he finally got back to Willimantic. Sometimes, the historical record leaves out a lot of important stuff.

As for Phelps, according to Lincoln, he escaped Willimantic unharmed. In all the confusion, “Aunt ‘Rushy Robinson” tossed her cloak over him and quietly led him to safety in her home.

Why did Orrin Robinson become an anti-slavery activist? Why was he willing to go to jail for his beliefs? Why did he stand up to a mob? The historical record is silent about all of that. But here is a nugget that may — or may not — mean something. Old maps show that the Robinsons (they were a large extended family) were farmers, and their farms were located along Jackson Street in Willimantic at a time when most of the land along the street was still farmland. Jackson Street was named not for former President Andrew Jackson, but for humble Lyman Jackson, a tenant farmer who lived on it. Lyman Jackson and Orrin Robinson thus were close neighbors. They would have known each other well. And one more detail. Lyman Jackson, Orrin Robinson’s neighbor, was a free black man. There is not evidence enough to know anything else for sure. But it is suggestive.

I found Orrin Robinson’s weathered tombstone in the Old Willimantic Cemetery, not too far from Lyman Jackson’s. Both stones are modest, flat marble, with plain letters. Neither man was wealthy. Robinson died in 1864, before the end of the Civil War, which — legally, at least — decided the fate of slavery in the United States. But he did live long enough to witness the Emancipation Proclamation. In my imagination, I picture him smiling at that.

Our history in Willimantic is complicated, with white supremacist forebears who threatened to forcibly shut down an abolitionist speaker, and resisters who — for reasons we can only guess at today — staged a 19th-century version of a counter-demonstration. Maybe knowing someone personally, as a neighbor, was important, breaking down barriers. Maybe it wasn’t, and Orrin Robinson did what he did for reasons other than human decency. But when it comes to the Methodist Melee on Main Street, I know which side I am on. If the time ever comes when I have to make a stand, I hope that I have as much courage as Orrin Robinson.

I’ll give Allen Lincoln, the late 19th- and early 20th-century Willimantic local historian, the last word. Lincoln noted that folks in his own times, sixty years after the Melee and thirty years after the Civil War, had a lot to say about the bigotry of the old days. But it is the bigotry of our own times, he warned, that we all have to look out for.

COMMENT from Matt:

Crandall’s arrest was in 1833, and the law she was charged with breaking was repealed in 1838. The melee, according to this post, was in 1837.

The jail at the time sat on what is now the front lawn of the Episcopal church placing it as a third point of a triangle with the courthouse (present day town hall) and Unitarian meetinghouse.

While Brooklyn had quite the liberal streak, that was a bit in decline as Samuel J. May had left as the Unitarian minister in 1836. (Brooklyn was the only congregation that when a Congregational/Unitarian schism occurred that the Unitarians were in the majority and kept the meetinghouse). So Robinson was walking towards a community a bit more abolitionist than most in a time when jail — except for the most serious crimes — was far different from today. Even my parents, a century later, can remember sledding down the hill from the school towards the present day jail and the trustees would then pull them back up the hill; simply imagine the national headlines of shock and horror it would generate today.

Even among liberal leaning groups, race was a source of conflict. May had desegregated seating one day, observing black children who could not see the pulpit from their seats in the balcony, by inviting them down to take seats in front of the pulpit. Upon returning from a trip, he found that they had been moved back up the balcony by pressure of some dissenters to his action. I doubt this was a spontaneous discovery to him which made his reaction all the more theatrical — he took to the podium, looked around, then silently went upstairs and walked the kids back to the front, then retook the podium to begin the sermon. It is said that was the end of that matter.

My Experience with an Old Willimantic Building

Jamie Eves is the Executive Director of the Windham Textile and History Museum, a.k.a. the Mill Museum, a small-to-middle-sized history museum in Willimantic, CT. He has an M.A. in History from the University of Maine and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Connecticut. He has been the E.D. at the Mill Museum since 2011, and a volunteer at the Museum since 2004. He has taught U. S. History, World and European History, and the History of Connecticut and New England as an adjunct instructor at Eastern Connecticut State University, the University of Connecticut, Three Rivers Community College, the University of Saint Joseph, Albertus Magnus College, the University of Bridgeport, and Central Connecticut State University.

My friend, Nicholas Khan, is working on an art graduate school project. He asked folks in Willimantic, CT, to write up their experiences with some of the city’s historic buildings. This is what I wrote.

MY EXPERIENCE WITH AN OLD WILLIMANTIC BUILDING

As the Executive Director of the Windham Textile and History Museum in Willimantic, CT, my job includes caring for the Museum’s main structure, built in 1877. The Willimantic Linen Company – a large cotton mill that specialized in various types of thread – constructed it as a three-story company store and library at the corner of what are now Union and Main Streets, then Willimantic’s two major thoroughfares. Local lore has it that the Superintendent of the Mill, William Elliot Barrows, decided to open a company store in order to compete with Willimantic’s many Main Street shops and stores, the owners of which dominated the City Council that had just raised the Mill’s taxes. As an added bonus, the previous structure on the lot (which was almost directly across the street from the Mill’s office building) had been a saloon, which Barrows – an ardent temperance advocate – was happy to demolish so as to no longer watch his employees head for drinks after work. The first floor of the new store — in essence, Willimantic’s first department store — was for groceries, the second floor was dry goods, and the third floor was a library. When the American Thread Company bought out the Willimantic Linen Company in 1898, it converted the first two floors into office space (the era of company stores having come to a close), but retained the library until 1940.

The Mill Museum today.

Although the building appears quaint and old-fashioned to today’s visitors, in 1877 it was ultra-modern. The Queen Anne-style architecture with faux Tudor beaming, gingerbread trim, and intricate brickwork on the first floor, were the latest style. The library had a high, pitched ceiling, with neo-gothic beaming, also in vogue in 1877. The ground story featured a poured concrete floor covered with linoleum – a new product at the time. The building had gas lights, and within a few years the Company installed steam heat and brass pneumatic tubes to connect with other buildings in the Mill complex. Two massive vaults protected both payrolls and the Company’s secret dye recipes.

The same building shortly after it was built in 1877.

Managing a 19th-century building poses challenges. Roofs leak. Heating and cooling systems stop heating and cooling. Ground water enters after every rainstorm. There is no insulation and the windows are very large, so heating bills are high. Floors slope. The brickwork needs repointing. And of course there is no elevator – heavy objects have to be carried up and down stairs. In the winter, pipes can freeze.

The third floor of what is now the Mill Museum was originally a library, as shown in this late 1800s photo.

The Museum is spookiest on dark, windy nights. The beams and windows creak. Lights flicker. Squirrels occasionally get into the rafters and scurry about. Keeping mice out in the winter is almost impossible, and they scritch and scratch as they prowl through the hollow walls. The building feels almost alive, creaking and shaking in rhythm to the passing city traffic – breathing in time with the pulse of the city, or perhaps beating as the city’s still living heart. Believers in ghosts are convinced the building is haunted, and the faithful have carried out numerous investigations. I have not yet met “Madeleine,” but I am told that she is here, watching over us, an ethereal – or imagined – link to the past, connecting the ages.

Despite the challenges, acting as steward for a historic building also provides a deep sense of satisfaction. The Museum is a public trust, an artifact from a bygone time, a relict of a golden age when Willimantic was thriving. As long as the building remains, some part of the city’s legacy still lives – some part which did not crumble into dust when the Mill left, but fought on, lived, and preserved the memories of a lively, pulsing mill city before it fell into the decline of deindustrialization, empty buildings, and urban decay. Repainted, re-roofed, kept in repair, and full of joyful people and activities, the venerable Mill Museum is evidence that life still courses through the city of Willimantic. It is, for me, the city’s beating heart, and being in it means touching life.

–Jamie H. Eves, Executive Director

Please Don’t Forget Me

Jamie Eves is the Executive Director of the Windham Textile and History Museum, a.k.a. the Mill Museum, a small-to-middle-sized history museum in Willimantic, CT. He has an M.A. in History from the University of Maine and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Connecticut. He has been the E.D. at the Mill Museum since 2011, and a volunteer at the Museum since 2004. He has taught U. S. History, World and European History, and the History of Connecticut and New England as adjunct faculty at Eastern Connecticut State University, the University of Connecticut, Three Rivers Community College, the University of Saint Joseph, Albertus Magnus College, the University of Bridgeport, and Central Connecticut State University.

People often ask me why the Mill Museum does what it does, and the people who work here do what we do. Like school teachers, museum professionals work long hours for little pay. (And our volunteers don’t get paid at all!) So, a few years ago, I wrote this. It’s why I work here. No one should be forgotten.

Please don’t forget me.

I worked. I worked in the mills. I worked at home on hand looms and spinning wheels. I worked on the railroad. I was a laborer. I cleaned other people’s houses. I operated a sewing machine in a shop. I sewed by hand. I processed chickens, made capacitors, and wound cables. I worked….

I was Yankee, Irish, English, Scottish, French Canadian, Polish, German, Italian, Russian, Syrian, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Guatemalan, Chinese, Indian, and many other ethnicities and cultures. I was Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim. I was a person….

I started working when I was 10 years old. I was a doffer, a spinner, a weaver, a carder, and a winder. I was an engineer, a dye master, a foreman, a machinist, and a manager. I worked in the print shop, machine shop, testing department, and box shop. I was a carpenter, a teamster, and a railroad hand. I worked at home. I was useful….

I worked eight, ten, and twelve hours a day. I lost fingers and hands in the machines. My lungs filled with fibers. My hearing was made faint by the noise of the machines. My eyesight dimmed. But I persevered….

I sent my children to school. I sent them to college. I wanted them to grow up to be foremen and managers. I wanted them to own stores, be police officers, fire fighters, teachers, bank clerks, farmers, and skilled workers. I wanted them to vote and hold office. I wanted them to have more than I had. I wanted them to be somebody….

I built the mills and mill towns of Connecticut.

Please don’t let them forget me.

–Jamie Eves

Mill Museum Blog

Blog posts by Jamie H. Eves, the Mill Museum’s Executive Director. A native of Maine, Eves moved to Connecticut with his wife and son in 1988 to complete a Ph.D. in History at the University of Connecticut. He began volunteering at the Mill Museum in 2005, and became the Museum’s Executive Director in 2011. Some of the content of this blog also appeared on the Mill Museum’s Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/WindhamTextileandHistoryMuseum/.

My Experience with an Old Willimantic Building

Please Don’t Forget Me